The Soviet Union’s Crazy ‘Planet of the Apes’
The USSR tried—and failed—to breed man and chimp
This story originally appeared on July 6, 2014.
Back in 2005, the Scottish daily newspaper The Scotsman ran a sensational story about a bunch of bizarre and ethically troubled Soviet experiments involving breeding humans with non-human apes.
The story had the makings of a great horror movie—a Soviet mad scientist, a grotesque experiment and a power-hungry dictator bent on creating a race of intelligent, simian super soldiers.
“I want a new invincible human being,” Joseph Stalin allegedly told his scientists, according to The Scotsman.
Too bad it’s mostly bullshit. Stalin wasn’t involved in this Soviet Planet of the Apes. Historians have likewise debunked the Stalin quote to be false. There were no plans to create a new race of Red Army ape soldiers.
But the story is not completely untrue, either. Russia did fund unsuccessful experiments in the 1920s with the goal of interbreeding humans and monkeys.
It’s a strange and creepy story that’s inspired outrageous headlines for almost 100 years.
Ilya Ivanov. Russian Academy of Sciences photo
The story centers on the eccentric Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov.
Before the Russian revolution, Ivanov studied bacteriology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. It was there he perfected the science of artificial insemination and hybridization.
Ivanov cross bred donkeys with zebras (he’s pictured next to one above), bison with cows—and rats with mice. But he wanted to go further. In 1910, he gave a lecture at an Austrian zoological conference on how artificial insemination could be used to breed humans with non-human apes.
He also thrived after the Bolshevik revolution. In 1924, he asked the Soviet Academy of Sciences to fund his research. The Academy agreed and granted Ivanov $100,000 to attempt the creation of an ape-human hybrid.
Ivanov used his connections at Institut Pasteur to gain access to their primate center in Guinea, then a French colony. Ivanov traveled to Africa, paid for the capture of viable females chimps and inseminated three likely candidates. He used sperm from local volunteers.
Obviously, this experiment didn’t work.
He switched tactics. Female chimps and male humans didn’t seem to compatible, but what about the other way around? Ivanov concocted a terrifying plan to give free medical examinations to local women and secretly inseminate them with chimpanzee sperm.
The local French governor forbade the Russian scientist from proceeding with the clandestine insemination. Ivanov returned home with the remainder of his captured primates.
A chimpanzee at Kenya’s Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Aug. 11, 2010. Valentina Storti/Flickr photo
‘Abominable to God’
By now, Ivanov’s money was running out. His captured apes were not adjusting to their new home. Only one of his apes—an orangutan—survived.
Seeking support, Ivanov wrote to Cuban animal keeper Rosalia Abreu. The daughter of a prominent plantation owner, Abreu was the first person to successfully breed apes in captivity. Ivanov detailed his experiment and asked Abreu to donate chimpanzees to his experiment. She agreed.
Ivanov also wrote to Charles Smith—the head of American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. Ivanov needed cash and he asked Smith to help raise money from members of the group. If man could interbreed with monkey, Ivanov reasoned, might they finally disprove the idea of a divinely-created human?
Smith—perhaps more fond of publicity than proving Darwin correct—alerted the media of Ivanov’s plans. “Soviets Back Plan to Test Evolution,” The New York Times’ headline read.
The article revealed the participation of Abreu. The Ku Klux Klan—then a powerful and threatening force in American society—pressured her and called the project “abominable to God.” She pulled her support..
Despite his new status as a media curiosity, Ivanov pressed onward with his experiment. One orangutan would have to do.
Ivanov sought female volunteers from the Russian population. Five answered his request and agreed to be sequestered while Ivanov attempted to induce a primate pregnancy. Then the orangutan died of a brain hemorrhage.
Ivanov’s experiment was in shambles, but he had bigger problems.
News of his attempt to inseminate African women without their consent reached the Kremlin. The Soviet Academy of Sciences was horrified. They investigated Ivanov, found him guilty of acting unethically and pulled their support. In 1930, Soviet authorities exiled Ivanov to Kazakhstan. He died one year later.
Red Square in the 1930s. Photo via Flickr
Atheism, eugenics and rejuvenation
The big mystery is why Ivanov pursued the experiments. There’s no clear explanation for a set of experiments that was simultaneously unethical, doomed … and really crazy.
Even foggier are the Soviet Academy of Science’s motivations for funding him. Both Kirill Rossiianov of the Russian Academy of Sciences and researcher Alexander Etkin have pored through Soviet records and Ivanov’s notes looking for answers.
One theory holds that the Bolshevik establishment didn’t care about the experiment in and of itself, but were interested in the apes they assumed Ivanov would bring back to Russia. Ape testes were an important part of rejuvenation therapies popular among the Kremlin elite.
Another theory states that Ivanov’s work would help to usher in an era of then-popular eugenics research.
Many scientists, including American geneticist Hermann Muller, thought a man-ape hybrid could help realize the dream of the New Socialist Man. The proponents of this theory—en vogue among communist ideologues at the time—believed this new kind of human would be stronger, smarter and healthier than before.
The last theory states that both Ivanov and the Bolsheviks pursued the experiments as a method of disproving Christianity by propping up Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ivanov’s pursuit of funding from famous American atheists is used as evidence for this theory, but it could also have been opportunistic.
However, we do know that Ivanov never met Joseph Stalin, and the Soviets never sought to breed an army of simian super soldiers. That would probably make for a good horror movie. But the reality is horrifying enough.